Blue Marble - December 2008

China Jumps To Hybrid

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 8:11 PM EST

277211.jpg China's first mass-produced hybrid electric car hit the market today. The car is made by BYD Auto and backed by Warren Buffett who owns 9.9 percent of the company. The F3DM (if you say so, C-3PO) can be charged from powerpoints at home or at electric car charging stations. That's a first for mass produced. The hybrid runs 62 miles on a full battery and costs under $22,000 dollars.

BYD Auto says it doesn't expect the F3DM will succeed with Chinese customers initially because of the high price, reports AFP. Instead the company is focusing on sales to company fleets. The strategy is to leapfrog past traditional cars—where Chinese technology lags badly—straight to hybrids.

Smart strategy. Remind me again why exactly we're bailing out our own loser car companies? BYD already specialized in producing rechargeable batteries and only started making cars in 2003 when it bought a bankrupt state-owned car company. Since then it's beaten Toyota and General Motors to the punch as those companies won't launch home-chargeable hybrids cars before 2009 and 2010 respectively. Can't we leapfrog past the traditional car companies straight to hyperdrive mass transit? Can't we, as the Chinese say, transform the current mass chaos into mass opportunity?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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Post-Mortem Plastic Surgery? Yech.

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 7:48 PM EST

According to Essence, we narcissists are now paying morticians to do plastic surgery on our corpses.

How, I wonder? Are folks leaving aside money with an attorney directing him to have our boobs lifted while we're on the slab? I can't imagine my loved ones caring enough to spend their own cash on my huge pores and even huger butt. I've often wondered about my own death, but never, until now that is, how'd I'd look when dead. Thanks Essence.

Good thing I'm going for cremation, because my kids would probably have me 'Petie-eyed' for my funeral.

Will Obama's Agriculture Pick be a Stinker?

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 12:58 PM EST

Nicholas Kristof's Times column on Obama's potential Secretary of Agriculture picks has generated a manure storm in the blogosphere. At issue is the fact that he may pick a typical agribusiness guy like Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop. This is ironic, and perhaps a bit duplicitous, given that Obama recently professed to reading, and being down with, Michael Pollan's sun-food agenda piece in the Times Magazine. Many liberals have not protested Obama's other less-than-progressive cabinet picks in part because they believe that Obama himself will balance them. But the problem with applying that theory to agriculture is that the Democratic Party is not really much more progressive on ag than Republicans. Indeed, opposition to the most recent farm bill was an odd coalition of California progressives and the Bush Administration. There will be so much institutional inertia to overcome on agriculture within the Democratic Party that it's hard to see how the system will ever change without a secretary who is truly committed to shaking it up. Obama might have the will, but he certainly won't have the time or energy.

Update: More on potential Obama picks. And this petition to encourage Obama to make a progressive Secretary of Agriculture pick has been gaining steam.

Update II: The names of possible Ag Secretary contenders keep shifting, indicating that the criticism might be having an effect. According to the AP, as of Monday December 15th the contenders are:

Dennis Wolf (PA Secretary of Agriculture)
Tom Buis (President of the National Farmers Union)
Charles Stenholm (Former West Texas Congressman and ranking member of Ag Comittee)
Stephanie Sandlin (Congresswoman from South Dakota and Ag Committee member)
Jill Long Thompson (Former Undersecretary of Ag under Clinton)

Still, none of these names are picks that have been circulated by activists in the Food Democracy petition.

Can California's Global Warming Plan Survive its Economic Crisis?

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 12:41 PM EST

Yesterday California approved a landmark global warming plan that would cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a 30 percent reduction. Meanwhile, the state is suffering through a fiscal crisis that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supports the global warming plan, describes as "financial Armageddon." The same day that California approved the climate measure, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle ran a giant Schwarzenegger block quote:

Every second, the state is losing $470, every minute, $28,000, and every hour $1.7 million and every day $40 million. That is approximately more than $1 billion a month if legislators don't act [to pass a new budget].

The California Air Resources Board, which approved the global warming plan, estimates that it would actually have "an overall positive effect on the economy" by spurring energy efficiency and technological innovation. However, the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analysis Office questioned that estimate, saying that the evaluation of some costs and benefits was "inconsistent and incomplete." As U.S. Congress prepares to debate its own climate bill in the near future, expect Republicans to argue that the California climate plan is a financial sink hole; in response, Democrats should note that the benefits of energy efficiency and technology investment will take awhile to materialize. The same could be said of bailing out Wall Street and the automakers, and, so far, that hasn't stopped us.

Powered By Java: Me & My Car

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 4:03 PM EST

800px-A_small_cup_of_coffee.JPG Looking for a spare 340 million gallons of biodiesel? Waste coffee grounds can provide a cheap, abundant, and environmentally friendly source of biodiesel fuel for cars and trucks. Spent grounds contain 11-20 percent oil by weight—about the same as rapeseed, palm, and soybean oil. Growers already produce more than 16 billion pounds of coffee yearly and the spent grounds generally wind up in the trash.

To see if that oil from those grounds is worth putting into your diesel tank, researchers from the U of Nevada collected separated the oil from the grounds and used an inexpensive process to convert 100 percent of it into biodiesel.

The result: a coffee-based fuel that actually smells like java. Mmmm. Plus it's more stable than traditional biodiesel due to the coffee's high antioxidant content. The solids left over from the conversion process can be converted to ethanol or used as compost. The researchers estimate the process could make a profit of >$8 million a year in the U.S. alone. Worldwide it could produce 340 million gallons of biodiesel annually. The team plans to develop a pilot plant in the next eight months.

The study appears in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Drink it up. Wake up your car.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Clean Coal: Caroling at a Home Near You

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 8:40 PM EST

clean-coal-carolers.jpg

Everyone seems to be getting into the holiday spirit, even...lumps of coal? A coal trade group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has sponsored a holiday campaign called "The Clean Coal Carolers" which features lumps of cartoon coal singing songs like "Frosty the Coalman" and "Abundant, Affordable." The website allows you to choose which hats and scarfs to dress the coal in. But all the scarves in the world can't hide the fact that "clean coal" is more a buzz word than an actual technology.

Last month Casey Miner reported for Mother Jones that:

The types of technology the industry says it will use are expensive and ineffective at best, and potentially catastrophic at worst—in other words, even if we were able to get our technology up to speed and somehow capture the carbon leaving every coal plant in the country, we wouldn't have anywhere safe to put it.

The Clean Coal Carolers also have a Facebook page with 22 fans, including one named "Asthma" and another "Black," short for Black Lung. Those are either parts of ACCCE's elaborate ruse or they are smart-ass kids who have studied Al Gore's "Reality" ad campaign, launched last week to "debunk the clean coal myth," and Mother Jones' past coverage of clean coal like "Follow The Money Deep Under Ground" by Shadi Rahimi and "Scrubbing King Coal" by James Ridgeway.

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Man-Made Chemicals Reduce Animals' Masculinity

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 4:32 PM EST

red-deer-stag.jpgThis week, the British organization CHEM Trust, which is financially supported by WWF-UK and Greenpeace, published a report (.pdf) reviewing scientific literature on the reproductive health of wildlife in contact with chemical pollutants. These pollutants include the usual suspects: phthalates, bisphenol A, PCBs, DDT, atrazine, etc. All of these chemicals have been covered extensively by Mother Jones, such as in the current issue's "Let's Go Europe," about European chemical regulations.

In a press release, the report's author, Gwynne Lyons, commented that, "Man-made chemicals are clearly damaging the basic male tool-kit." The report concludes:

Some of the most prevalent effects reported in male wildlife, which are associated with pollutants, are related to genital disruption (GD). GD includes an array of manifestations. Notable amongst these are: intersex features (such as egg tissue in the testes of the male); small phallus; small testes; undescended testes or other obvious structural defects of the male reproductive tract; or ambiguous genitals.

And the human implications?

Taken together, the effects seen in wildlife should raise concerns for contaminant induced genital disruption in human male infants. Indeed a condition called testicular dysgenesis syndrome, including birth defects of the penis of baby boys, cryptorchidism (undescended testes), reduced sperm production and testicular cancer, has been suggested, because there is evidence to indicate that these effects may be interlinked in causation. Scientists have also noted that the rapid pace of the increase of human male reproductive disorders indicates an environmental cause as do studies following baby boys born to immigrants who take on the same risk for testicular cancer, as the offspring of residents born in that country.

[Update: Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson points out that male Polar Bears have been hit especially hard by pollution-related "genital disruption"—their penises are shrinking.]


Photo used under Creative Commons license.

New EPA Fugitive List = Pretty Useless

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 2:05 PM EST

The EPA today released a new, "America's Most Wanted"-style list of environmental fugitives. Many of the fugitives, who have been charged with everything from "illegal discharge of hazardous pollutants" to "illegal asbestos removal," are suspected to have fled to countries like Syria and Denmark. Grant Nakayama, an official in the EPA's enforcement division, said in a press release that "Putting this information on the EPA's website will increase the number of 'eyes' looking for environmental fugitives."

While portraying people who commit environmental crimes as serious criminals is definitely laudable, EPA enforcement has been almost completely toothless under the Bush administration. You gotta wonder if, even if they the EPA does get information on these fugitives, they'd actually try to convict them. According to the Associated Press, in 2008 the EPA opened 100 fewer criminal enforcement cases than they did in 2004. In 2006, it began shutting down its research libraries. As one senior EPA scientist, Wes Wilson, told us in the current issue, the EPA has moved far from its investigative past. "Now we sit around and basically do nothing," he said.

Not only is the EPA investigating fewer cases, it's getting political interference on the cases it has pursued. According to a recently retired EPA official, the DOJ may have improperly shut down an investigation of a huge 2006 BP oil spill. Maybe the EPA is just treading water waiting for an Obama-related reorganization, but I couldn't help but feel the list is a waste of resources without including more headshots of CEOs from oil and energy companies. Though CEOs aren't fugitives, when it comes down to it, their corporations are the ones doing the major damage, not guys like Alessandro Giordano who "illegally imported automobiles that did not meet the United States emission standards." For my taxpayer dollar, I'd prefer to see less energy spent looking for small-time criminals abroad, and more effort on catching those really big fish here at home.

Get Paid, Lose Weight

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 9:54 PM EST

800px-United_States_one_dollar_bill%2C_obverse.jpg The power of money. Obese people offered a financial reward for every pound lost shed more weight during a 16 week trial than those given diet advice. That's not all. Previous studies show that smokers and cocaine addicts can be weaned off their habits by paying them to stay drug-free. Kids in developing countries actually attend school more when their parents are paid for it. A study currently underway in New York is assessing whether cash incentives motivate parents to send their kids for regular health check ups.

The diet study from U Penn found that many participants put weight on again after the program ended. The authors suggest long lasting results need long lasting payments. The paper appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

So what would thinner people buy for the planet? How about fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And what else might we buy for the common good? Peace? Rational thinking? If all it takes is money and we're already running the presses overtime, why not print some more?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Co2 To Ploughshares

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 9:22 PM EST

800px-Farmer_plowing.jpg An ancient method of ploughing charred plants into the ground to revive soil may also trap greenhouse gases for thousands of years. Here's how it works: Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Burning these plants and trees in airtight conditions produces a high-carbon substance called biochar. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell estimates the carbon storage time of stable biochar could be a few thousand years, reports Reuters.

Lehmann's ambitious scenario estimates biochar could store 1 billion tons of carbon annually. That's more than 10 percent of 2007's 8.5 billion tons of global carbon emissions. His conservative scenario prescribes heating without oxygen (pyrolysis) 27 percent of the world's crop waste and ploughing it into the soil to store 0.2 billion tons of carbon a year.

According to the International Biochar Initiative, soils with biochar made by Amazon people thousands of years ago still contain up to 70 times more black carbon than surrounding soils and are still higher in nutrients. . . Two big howevers: We can't cut forests to do this and we can't avoid reducing CO2 emissions at the same time. But we can put all the little fixes together starting now.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.